AZUSA, Calif. -- With the Golden State Athletic Conference championship hanging in the balance, Azusa Pacific’s peppering of the Vanguard goal on back-to-back corner kicks finally resulted in the “golden goal” with just 69 seconds remaining in the final overtime period, lifting the NAIA’s No. 12-ranked Cougars to the GSAC title with a 2-1 win over No. 15-ranked Vanguard Saturday afternoon.
Although a Vanguard defender inadvertently knocked the ball in for an own goal, it was the result of a furious Azusa Pacific attack in which the goal mouth resembled a pinball machine, with the soccer ball rattling the post, the goalkeeper, and both attackers and defenders before it found the top netting for the game-winning score.
“You never know in overtime,” said senior defender Jared Karkas. “It’s just a matter of willpower and heart as far as who’s going to put it in the back of the net. I thought for the majority of the overtime we did control the ball, and soccer’s a game of chances. We ended up getting a lucky one at the end.”
The stakes were high for both teams in Saturday’s regular-season finale. The conference championship was set to go to the winner of the match between programs tied for second in the GSAC entering the contest, but a draw would have given the GSAC crown to Concordia, which had wrapped up its regular season earlier in the week.
“We didn’t want to sit back and settle for a draw – we wanted to go for it in overtime. We really wanted to get the win,” said Cougar assistant coach Dave Blomquist, who led the team for the second time this week as head coach Phil Wolf was not available for the game while attending to a family matter.
The overtime opportunity almost didn’t even happen. Vanguard freshman reserve forward Albert Quinones gave the Lions a 1-0 halftime lead with his fifth goal of the season, a 15-yard strike to the near post in the 38th minute. With the game tied at 1-1 in the closing minutes of regulation, Quinones got another clean look from the top left corner of the box, nearly the identical spot as his first goal. Azusa Pacific senior goalkeeper James Crawford couldn’t quite extend far enough to get a hand on Quinones’ bouncing shot towards the far post. Initially, the ball appeared headed for the side netting, but the shot drifted right with each bounce and ricocheted off the right post, keeping the game tied with just under 3 minutes to play in regulation.
“As the time goes by and you miss some chances,” said Blomquist, “you just wonder if you’re going to keep getting the chances that you need and keep going until you get the once chance that you take. At the same time, you also know that you’re never out of it until it’s done. It’s a funny game like that, and it turns on a dime.”
Junior midfielder Eric Winblad scored the equalizer early in a second half that saw Azusa Pacific pound 11 shots at Vanguard and its sophomore goalkeeper Trevor Herrera. It took the Cougars over 11 minutes to generate its first scoring chance of the second half, but freshman forward Vini Dantas put a cross from the right side to the head of Winblad, who headed it to the far post from 10 yards out.
“In the beginning of the game, it was hard for us to penetrate and get down to the line to cross it in,” Winblad said. “Vini was able to get through. He got it to the line and crossed it, and I just flicked it to the far post.”
Dantas nearly gave his team the lead in the 67th minute, launching back-to-back shots at goal just seconds apart. After briefly breaking free near the top of the box, Dantas fired from 20 yards out off a Vanguard defender, then found himself right back in possession of the rebound. He immediately struck it with his left foot from the top of the box, but Herrera made the heart-stopping save to keep the game tied. Herrera, who had 6 saves in the game, needed a quick reaction to keep an 8-yard 73rd-minute Winblad header from becoming the Cougars’ go-ahead score.
Vanguard took 3 corner kicks in the first overtime, but all 3 were cleared by the Azusa Pacific defense without allowing a shot attempt. With less than 2 minutes to play in the second overtime, sophomore defender Brett Taylor’s corner kick was headed back across the goal line by a Vanguard defender for another try. Taylor sent the ball back in from the same corner to initiate the frenetic final scoring sequence. Junior midfielder Dana Yoshizu got a foot on the ball at one point, sending it off the post in front of the goal mouth, and a flurry of action finally resulted in a frantic clearance attempt that ended up finding the back of the net instead.
“I ran near (post), and the ball went over and bobbled around a little bit,” Winblad said. “I think Dana might have hit it off the post. There were about 10 guys in the (6-yard) box, and it looked like one of their guys just shinned it in. It was just chaos in there – I can’t really describe it. Everyone was just kicking in there.”
The victory was Azusa Pacific’s first in 4 overtime contests this season. The previous 3 all resulted in ties at the end of 2 overtime periods, and 2 of them occurred on the Cougars’ home field. Azusa Pacific is unbeaten in 15 of its past 16 overtime contests, with a penalty-kick defeat to Graceland (Iowa) in the 2006 NAIA title game the only blemish in extra-time games the past 3 seasons.
It was also the third time in the past 5 years that a team’s GSAC championship fate rested on the result of an Azusa Pacific regular-season finale that ended up going to overtime. The Cougars shared the 2004 GSAC title with Vanguard when it suffered a 4-3 overtime loss at home to Point Loma Nazarene, and the very next season a 3-2 double-overtime road defeat to Fresno Pacific ended the Cougars’ GSAC title hopes.
Six of the last 7 games between Azusa Pacific and Vanguard have been decided by a single goal. Vanguard won by 1-0 margins in 2003, 2005 and 2006, and the Cougars have won 3 straight by a 2-1 margin, including an overtime win in the 2006 NAIA Region II championship game in Azusa.
“Based on the quality we know Vanguard has and based on the games we’ve played with them the last few years, we just knew it was going to be a great game,” Blomquist said. “These are the games you look forward to. It took us until the last minute to go to get the win, but it was a great game by both sides.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific finishes the regular season 11-3-3 overall and claims back-to-back GSAC titles with an 8-1-1 conference mark. Vanguard wraps up the regular season 9-5-2 overall, 7-2-1 GSAC.
The GSAC Men’s Soccer Postseason Tournament, which will determine the conference’s automatic qualifier to the 32-team NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship field, begins with first-round contests on Wednesday, Nov. 5. By virtue of winning the conference title, Azusa Pacific will be the top seed in the 8-team field, and the Cougars will host eighth-seeded California Baptist University at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5.